HEMINGWAY VARIATION No. 16
In ’78 I was posted to Gwalior District as a lieutenant in the 13th Hussars. The men were rough, but as any junior officer soon learns, better that than sullen. I was fortunate in my peers as well. There was the usual raillery in the mess, but when it came right down to it, everyone minded his own business.
Bosom pals have never been my line. A pack of cards put me on convivial terms with three or four fellows and gin and quinine on the verandah with another three or four, but it never reached the point of murmured confidences. Besides, I soon found a more engrossing interest in the village.
I suppose you could say that this was what led to my downfall. I thought I had done well by the girl and then one day I learned that I had not done well by her at all. The afternoon that she educated me about this I was so disturbed by the possibility that an entirely different man than I had supposed was wearing my uniform and using my name that instead of taking the track through the scrub back to camp, I turned my mare away and left the village on the road to Ambah.
It was a good road, for beneath the dusty gravel slept a ribbon of macadam, laid down after ’57 to help hurry us on if another relief of Lucknow ever became necessary. But the Ambah route had been long abandoned in favor of the one through Etawah, as had been the rail bed that ran beside it, and on it I traversed the dreary dhoon in isolation. The loneliness of the road and the brown khus on either side, barely alive, much less able to stand on its own feet, comforted me by reminding me that when it comes down to it, we all are dust, or will be soon enough. Better that than coming back as a cockroach, which I was sure would be my fate now, if I had had the bad luck to have been born a Hindu. A swooping, wheeling hobby followed us for a while, cackling, and gave me a taste of the contempt I deserved.
The sun had dropped enough to draw a shadow line along the khus on my left to mark the deep nullah which, once a year, during monsoon, earned its name of the Morar River. On my right was the old rail bed and a mile or so beyond that a line of dry hills whose undulating contours, shimmering in the afternoon haze, made them look like a caravan of white elephants plodding trunk to tail.
I was just about to say I was lost in thought, but that saw grossly ennobles the skein of brainwork and soul work which I labored to unravel with all the efficiency of a Sisyphus. Thus unavailingly laboring I did not notice, until I almost had ridden past, a sight so odd that I turned away at first, so as not to take a dekho like some gawping native.
Sitting on a brightly painted green bench beside the old railway, their backs to me, were an Englishman and an Englishwoman. She was young, I could see that right away, with fair hair drawn into a large chignon. She wore a pink frock and held a parasol to match, tipped back against the sun. He was substantially rectangular, in a grey jacket and an old-fashioned sola topi.
When they heard or, rather, when they no longer heard the clop clop of my mare on the roadbed as I swung her onto the grassy verge, the woman turned towards me with an alacrity fueled, it seemed, by expectation, whilst the man stood and came around the back of the bench, smiling in a most friendly fashion. He held up his hand. I leaned down and stretched out my own to meet it.
His manly grin was mitigated by an open, melon-like face that did not square with the mature bulk of his torso. Bushy mutton-chops should have alleviated that unseasoned, boyish impression, it might well have been their intent, but in truth they only emphasized it. So did his overlong jacket, which descended almost to his knees.
“Willoughby Eldred,” he said and, after I had responded in kind, continued, “Miss Eldred, my sister.” She smiled and bobbed a visage pale by nature, but paler still, I thought, from anxiety. “From the cantonment?” Eldred asked.
“All well up there?”
“Like a snooze in a tonga,” I replied.
Eldred turned to his sister and they nodded at each other as if I had just confirmed that, as usual, thank goodness, tiffin will be served at five.
I would have liked to have known what they were doing there, sitting quietly on a bench in the middle of the dhoon as if they were in Regents Park. It was not my nature to ask, however, any more than it was the nature of the mess to show its interest, which I have no doubt existed, in affairs of mine which I did not volunteer to share. I was just as curious about the existence of that gay green bench, but I fancied it was something about which Mr. and Miss Eldred could not have enlightened me.
Eldred raised his hand again and again I leaned down to meet it. “We are sure of you,” he said.
It was a peculiar thing to say, but not more peculiar than the rest of it.
“Thank you” was called for, so that is what I said before turning my mare back to the Ambah road.
The encounter had been so off-kilter that now, in relief, I felt as straight up as a flagpole and ready to advance on Morar the camp and Morar the village and make whatever maneuvers I could in a field which was, at least, not a strange one when it came to the affairs of men.
I had gone ten paces, perhaps, when I heard a train. At least, I thought it was a train, speeding past as if on its way to Ambah and thence Bhind, Kanpur and Lucknow, but now I realize that all I heard was a rushing of air, as of a gale, and a noisy slithering, as if a line of great beasts was streaming through the khus, with none of a train’s clanking and creaking and hissing. Then it was gone. I recall that, even before I swung around to look, it occurred to me that it had been a spiraling wind devil, not uncommon on a bangar plain.
Then I saw them, Mr. and Miss Eldred, upright, side by side, elevated about two yards above the ground, their forms absolutely still, without a flutter in Miss Eldred’s frock or the fringes of her parasol. Floating upward toward the distant hills, they already had crossed the railway tracks and I could see by the angle of their ascent that by the time they reached the hills they would clear their crest.
My nokar found me lying on my back in the road. I was babbling into my cork helmet. My mare was down in the nullah lapping at whatever thread of water still moved through the caked earth.
I know what the story is. It is said that I was singing “Troopin’, troopin’, troopin’ to the sea,” but that is too good a tale to be true. The natives, of course, do not care about anything that comes out of our mouths unless it is directed at them, so I will never know what words my scrambled brain was casting out or even their tongue.
I also have heard that the deep thinkers in the mess have found another excuse in my accident to expand on the visionary powers of the indigenous homo sapiens, my nokar seeming to have known where to find me by some deep instinct lost to us in the confusion of civilization. In fact, he simply had gone into the village and asked which road I had taken.
That I was mad I have no doubt, but do I strike you as that still? My hope is that the surgeon will diagnose my fleeting incapacity as sun-stroke and return me to barracks, from whence I can make right, to whatever degree of courage I am capable, what I made wrong.
The last thing I want is to be sent “home,” which is a word for a place five thousand miles from where I am at home. What might befall me there, I cannot imagine, but I can imagine the journey, with nothing to do but gaze out at the inhuman sea and worry.
A friend of mine once said that to be afraid for the sake of another is “the most soul-satisfying fear known to man.” But he was young when he said that. I am sure that by now he has grown wiser. Any sergeant worth his salt can train you in the cures for fear for yourself. It is the other that can become a festering wound.
During the nights of that long voyage, I expect, awake or asleep, I will be unhealthily engrossed in Mr. and Miss Eldred, their mystery and their never to be resolved anxieties. The days will be worse. With the hard deck under my feet, the hard sky above my head and the hard accoutrements of reality before my face, sore with impotence and self-loathing, I will have no alternative (like one in the hands of the Thuggee who pinned open their victims’ eyes) but to regard, as if on a vast screen and in all its possible variations, the happenstance to which I will have abandoned the girl whose daintily ornamented ear once admitted the secrets of my heart.